The increasing role of processes in our day-to-day work activities is often challenged by those who use them. Do they bring us actual advantages or are they just an extra layer of bureaucracy?
Will we all become robots performing mindless tasks or will the introduction of processes bring advantages both to the workers and the businesses?
Why Do We Need Processes?
Taking a decision is always a time-consuming activity. Should I have a sandwich or pizza? What colour should I choose for my new car? When it comes to business and professional decisions, it can be not only time-consuming but also quite stressful.
In a professional environment, when having to take a complex decision, we often get caught up in countless meetings and endless mail exchange. Prolonging the decision-making process creates additional stress for everyone involved.
This is where management, mostly middle management, often jumps in. Their role is to gather information needed for making a right decision. Again, gathering information is a time-consuming and stressful activity.
Based on this, there is a common practice (not to be confused with the best practice). Old employees know the “whats”, “hows” and “whens” all too well but the newbies have to set out and go over the “learning curve”. Learning from someone else’s experience and (usually) unwritten information could feel like taking a road down a mystical path.
On the other hand, a process is an approved solution to the same set of tasks, based on the experience of the day-to-day work. The goal is to improve efficiency and prevent the past errors, as well as the stress related to those errors, in order to make the job easier.
This is why creating processes is becoming essential! A process reflects experiences and decisions that have already been taken and approved by the company. Under conditions A, B and C, you can do Z.
You do not need a confirmation before taking action. The same information is available to old employees as well as new ones. It can be updated if needed, and easily communicated throughout the company.
Using processes allows managing by exception. As long as we are within the process boundaries there is no need for any kind of intervention from the management. The moment we cross these boundaries, a new process is triggered and the management intervenes. On the long run, it helps employees build confidence and reduce the amount of stress.
Not everybody agrees on the need for processes. Let’s go through two sets of conflicting arguments in favour and against the implementation of processes.
Experience vs Process
One of the main concerns we face when introducing a process to a new environment is the fear that experience and personal skills will be nullified. We fear that having to stick to a process will lead us to act as robots.
To answer this, we need to analyse two aspects: the Human factor and the Business factor.
The Human Factor
A common mistake is that employees often ignore or work around the process to be more efficient. By doing this, they take on their shoulders the burden of making decisions and raise the stress level.
The correct approach would be to think of the process as a living thing, something that is constantly evolving. If a part of the process is inefficient or there is a potentially better new approach, it falls to the users to recognise this need and generate a new approach.
The role of the management, especially middle management, is fundamental for leading the change. This is where their leadership emerges – they should listen and evaluate proposals and motivate their team to embrace the innovations.
In the end, a good process building approach strongly depends on the employees’ skills and experience.
The Business Factor
One interpretation of the above section could be that we need good team interaction and communications, not processes. So why are they that important for business?
To correctly evaluate our profitability and potential, activities must first be measurable. For example, Michael is doing a task in 3 hours and Jason is doing it in 2 hours. Does that mean Jason is more productive than Michael?
Difficult to say! Are they using the same tools? Are they producing the same deliverables? If not why?
Let us assume that Michael is using the company mail system to share documents. It is a company-approved system, but it is quite slow. On the other hand, Jason is using a free web-based tool to share the same documents. It’s much faster and more practical.
This may generate two scenarios: either the company does not approve the web sharing of the document, for example for security reasons (in this case, Jason is working faster but against company policies). Or alternatively, the tool is compatible with company’s policies and anyone can use it.
Only when the same processes are used by everyone, will we be able to assess the efficiency.
If you have a team of 10 persons doing the same task, you need them to work in the same way to correctly evaluate your capacity of absorbing new business, manage risks or cope with absences.
When involving several persons, a process also has the advantage in defining a clear accountability for the task. This will help determine whether additional guidance and resources are required.
Often, process driven companies are less vulnerable in case a staff member is absent or decides to leave. If that happens, it’s easier for a colleague to take over since the working methods are identical.
In short, processes are not there to negate the creativity or personal skills but to provide a standard way of working and should be considered a great opportunity for creative and experienced persons to show their potential to management.
Emergency vs Process
Another classical argument against process is that they cannot be applied in cases of emergency. “It’s urgent, we don’t have time to follow the process.” Sounds familiar? To be honest, it’s only half true.
Processes are fundamental for people like firefighters, those who work in emergency rooms, research labs, military operations and so on. These people stick to procedures since they put themselves in life-threatening situations on their jobs and there is no room for hesitation – everybody must know exactly what to do at any time. Not respecting the procedures may have dire consequences for them or the people present.
In our day-to-day business activities, we should always remember this! Crisis brings a great deal of confusion and chaos which is why having a pre-set plan can help you stay on top of things and get to the other side.
However, there are some downsides to using the processes. Most of the time the problem is the very process. How? Processes tend to describe only one standard, the best-case scenario.
What if following the process doesn’t allow you to respect your deadline? For example in a public tender, where there is no asking for a delay. In this case, having to stick to the process may seem disruptive to the company. We usually blame the process for impeding the business. But the real problem lies in the way the process is constructed.
If the process only describes the standard approach, we will have to forfeit the activity, escalate the issue, or even worse, find a way around it. Either way, we will find ourselves in a tense, time-consuming situation. Also, people tend to declare urgency to avoid the processes. However, if the process is customised for dealing with an emergency or crisis, it should be specified (apart from how to act) what qualifies as the emergency in order to avoid the arbitrary behaviour.
Again, we will be able to measure our results and evolve to perform better.
Even though it’s in the human nature to reject constraints, we must consider the benefits of working in a structured, process-based environment, for both people and businesses.
Working in such environment means less stress and more chances to show workers’ personal skills.
For the middle management, whose role is often challenged, the benefits would be a redefinition of their role of controllers and enforcers to leaders and drivers of change.